Personal Museums and Creative Community
Against the backdrop of the global pandemic, we held the M+ Online Hackathon—City of Objects over two weeks in August 2020. M+ Hackathons are design thinking workshops where participants develop creative projects within a time limit. This edition focused on ‘personal museums’, encouraging participants to explore the concept of objects through the lenses of everyday life, personal and cultural identities, and virtuality.
In this second of a two-part series documenting the Hackathon’s roundtable discussion, organiser Kate Gu (Producer, Digital Special Projects, M+), facilitators Christian Marc Schmidt (Principal and Founder, Schema) and Chun-wo Pat (Founder and Owner, Whitespace Integrated Design), and judge Ikko Yokoyama (Lead Curator, Design and Architecture, M+) unpack how participants developed their ‘personal museums’, and how the event created community within a pandemic.
The Personal Museum
Kate: In addition to the theme of ‘objects’, this Hackathon was centred around the idea of the ‘personal museum’. What does it mean for a museum to be personal? Is it about the identity, the experience, or even the body?
Christian: To me, the experience of visiting a museum is personal on some level. A lot of it goes back to the personal associations that we make with objects. What’s interesting to me is where these connections become shared connections that actually transcend the individual and the boundaries of the personal museum. I picture this as a web of meaning that goes beyond the walls of any one institution.
Pat: I feel it’s important to have the museum as a repository of human thoughts, as a place for memory, as a place for history, and as a place to help people look at the small things from different perspectives. Personal museums are probably those that provide different definitions of history and aesthetics that originate from personal, as opposed to institutional, perspectives.
I think the personal museum is almost the opposite of the museum as we define it now: as architectural and institutionalised. Our Hackathon is an extension of this. To make you remove your experience from a conventionally defined museum experience and move it outside the museum, but still feel the energy of the museum.
We all have meanings in our personal lives connected to objects that we use. And I think the personal museum comes from the idea of how you define the relationship between the object and the museum, and how you define yourself through the object and the museum.
Christian: Pat, as I was listening to you, I feel like you’re interested in how we can bring the museum into the personal sphere, right? Whereas I was approaching it from the other way around: bringing the personal sphere into the museum.
I’ve been thinking about it in two different layers: on the one hand, the abstract or interpretive, which is the web of meaning that I mentioned earlier; on the other hand, the tangible and emotional, which is caught up in the physicality of the object. I think that’s where, during the Hackathon, things became very resonant; where those two intersected.
Ikko: The museum is already personal in some ways. Museums are already bespoke to your space, to your city, to your region. It’s impossible to be a depository for everything, so we are always forced to select and to decide what is important for each place and for the people there.
All our efforts in curating an exhibition are aimed at triggering something. Something triggers you to experience objects, and the accumulation of those experiences connect to your life, building you a personal museum as a toolbox that you can use.
Christian: My simplistic way of interpreting what you were just saying is that museums are there to communicate a hierarchy of cultural values that are contextualised in a particular place and time. But this idea is in and of itself really interesting. The sense that a particular society has a system of cultural values, and that within those you can start to see a prioritisation of which values I should care about.
Ikko: What we try to emphasise is that visual culture helps you appreciate your surroundings. As a curator of design and architecture, my goal is that when the visitors are on their way home from the museum, their view of the city or even just their way of visiting the supermarket changes.
As a museum, there will always be a question of whether our collection really reflects our time. There will definitely be things that we miss, because it’s impossible to be comprehensive. But at the same time, today we have more ways to go beyond the objects themselves.
I really love this conversation, for example; to preserve this conversation as a part of museum memory. I think we can include more information about how people have reacted to this museum, or this exhibition, this event. The object itself cannot tell the entire history.
Christian: And isn’t it also a question of voice? The institutional perspective versus maybe the more democratic perspective? That’s a little bit of what Pat and I were also touching on: could you bring the personal perspective into the museum and make it a part of that experience? Or could you bring the museum into the personal sphere?
Ikko: Definitely. Our challenge is, as you said, how we bring that in. What is already happening, at least, is that non-scholarly voices are already part of our institutional history. But again, how are we going to utilise that as a part of a shared museum experience?
Kate: I’m interested in the inclusivity of object interpretation in an exhibition: whether we can incorporate and include more voices, trying to create alternative narratives that matter in our context?
Christian: I think of it as this large network from within which you can find infinite narratives. I think the interpretation needs to be optional. It can invoke something when you choose to understand more. And when you just want to appreciate the object by itself, you need to have that ability as well.
Ikko: That’s the game: to balance how to convey the message. Curators are often so scared to be misinterpreted when explaining the work and the artist's intention. But there’s no such thing as that kind of misunderstanding. It’s more about how you can appreciate or see—maybe deconstruct on some level—a work and understand its meaning to you.
Pat: The question is whether that understanding is based on the intuitive response to colour and texture or context that comes from reading a book. Are there shared perceptions between humans? A simple exercise is the FedEx logo. A lot of people don’t ever see the arrow in the word FedEx. But once you point it out to them, all of a sudden there's a moment of alignment. That may be the function of, maybe not interpretation, but inspiration. How can you inspire people to think about things differently?
Christian: Could there also be a way to bring in the community narrative? A bit like in the Hackathon, where we asked people to merge their independent collections and think about what makes them relate to one another. Certainly, many museums have experimented with this. And there’s a role for technology in helping to create those connections and those narratives. But how can you bring in the voice of the community in a way that feels authentic and compelling?
Kate: When designing this programme, we talked about the importance of nurturing local creative communities. Do you think our attempt to set up an online communal space succeeded?
Ikko: It was so fun to see this kind of community building; observing how it formed in only two weeks and hearing the participants’ thoughts. M+ Hackathons have been very powerful teaching moments for me because they provide the most direct feedback from our audiences using our collections data. They use the same ingredients that we have, but create alternative narratives around what the museum should be—with and beyond the object.
Pat: The whole concept behind the personal museum, in light of COVID-19, is that we're working in isolation but in a momentary community connected in this virtual space. When we started this whole initiative about ‘objects’ as a way to bring communities together, there was a lack of the haptic aspect—the touching—in the virtual space.
So the Hackathon itself is funny in the way that everyone worked by themselves in all kinds of domestic spaces, and at the same time reached out virtually. It shows how community can be established through the experience of art.
Christian: It was almost community by design because of how the workshop was constructed. We asked people to pool their personal objects together, and then, in a group, find the relationships between them. Through those conversations, it’d be hard to not form some kind of a community. A community that, because we had people calling in from many places, is not so much spatial, but more based around associations, topics, and themes that resonated with people.
People came in with very different skill sets, and they brought together their various skills in the end. It didn’t always succeed, by the way, but that's not even the point. It's more that they tried, and were expressing themselves in a way in which they felt they had some authority and skill.
Kate: There was one group with participants from a humanities versus computer science background, so they were basically speaking different languages. Towards week two, they found a way to communicate and to create a project that felt very put together. Observing that process was really amazing: that people from such different backgrounds can communicate and work together. That itself is the best manifestation of a community.
Christian: It’s the best feeling when that happens. I remember feeling so happy for them.
Pat: The creative community is much needed in the world right now, so that we can think creatively to solve the world's problems and think collectively about our differences and similarities. We're all human, we all feel the pain, we all feel something that emotionally hits home. We all feel the global epidemic. I think that experience [creates] a community.
I'm really thankful that I was part of this Hackathon. It was the first time I’ve had that experience myself. It was different from teaching. We were all like friends talking to one another to exchange ideas. There was no right or wrong.
For M+, there’s a lot of work ahead of you in terms of how to help the community. I think it is really needed. I was born in Hong Kong. It's not the same Hong Kong now. We're losing the connection to the community. So maybe the museum needs to do its part in glueing us together. The Hackathon is one of the ways that this can be done.
This discussion has been edited for clarity. Don’t miss part one of this roundtable discussion, which touches on physical vs. digital objects and pandemic anxiety. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.